The liberal voice of US radio forced to shut up

As Air America goes off the airwaves, it's another blow for the left – but how serious is its demise, or had the station simply had its day, asks David Usborne

After years of brushing treetops and church spires, Air America, the radio network that was meant to be the broadcast antidote to the conservative baritone of Rush Limbaugh and the right-wing rantings of Michael Savage, has finally crashed and burst into flames. The last of its original programming went out on Thursday night.

The demise of the network, founded in 2004 with the likes of Al Franken and Janeane Garofolo at the microphone, is one more blow to liberals in the US whose week began with the loss of Ted Kennedy's senate seat in Massachusetts. But it was not a big surprise. Air America never really gained the altitude it needed to survive.

That the company was giving up the ghost for good – there was an earlier bankruptcy filing in 2006, but it stayed on the air – was announced to the world on the Air America website. Repeats of old programmes will be available to its 100-odd affiliate stations around the country until Monday, but thereafter it will cease to exist.

"The very difficult economic environment has had a significant impact on Air America's business. This past year has seen a perfect storm in the media industry," the company said. "We are proud that Air America's mission lives on through the words and actions of so many former radio hosts who are active today in progressive causes and media nationwide."

The legacy of Air America may well lie in the rising careers of a few of its alumni. Mr Franken, who came to the station with a CV that included comedy writing at Saturday Night Live and authoring books skewering Republicans, left the network in 2007 to launch his successful bid for a US Senate seat in Minnesota.

Then there is the phenomenon of Rachel Maddow, who laboured for years in off-prime-time slots at Air America before someone finally cottoned on to her growing popularity and gave her greater prominence. With success came more opportunities, however, and Ms Maddow eventually left the network to begin her own – increasingly high-profile – political talk show on the liberal-leaning 24-hour TV news outlet, MSNBC.

But while some on-air personalities prospered, the network itself did not. At the end, many of its 100 affiliates around the country were obscure stations with miniscule audiences. Abritron, the company that measures radio ratings in the US, recently noted that it could not detect any listeners at all in Washington DC where Air America was available on WZAA. What, no liberals listening in the nation's capital?

Mr Limbaugh, who has been a dominant presence on America's AM dial since 1991, may have put his finger on it soon after it launched. It was over-earnest. "First, you have to entertain people," he said. "You have to make it interesting to listen. I don't hear that".

Others faulted Air America precisely for hiring comedians and actors, such as Franken and Garofolo, who had no experience of filling the radio airwaves for two or three hours without pause and consequently made a mess of it.

They "held a year-long, on-the-air school of self-taught broadcasting. Nobody in charge realised that talking every weekday on the radio is a learned art," noted Richard Corliss of Time magazine last night.

In recent years, voices who had appeared to be gaining good followings included Ron Kuby, a civil rights lawyer whose clients have included associates of the Gambino Mafia family, and Ron Reagan, the son of former president Ronald Reagan, who until this week was considered one of the network's freshest and biggest draws.

Air America's sudden appointment with the reaper, while gloomy news for liberals, helped fuel the celebrations that conservatives have been holding since the win of Scott Brown – "Senator Beefcake" – in Massachusetts and the very public disarray it has prompted within the party of President Barack Obama.

"The passing of Air America is another reminder that our nation is centre-right and the ideas of Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi will never take root in this great country," Paul Cooper, a conservative pundit asserted on NewsReal.

Given how far down the ratings pole Air America had slipped, this may be overstating the impact of its collapse. And it is not true that without Air America, the citizens of the US are bereft of liberal voices on the radio dial.

The news magazines of National Public Radio – Morning Edition and All Things Considered, in particular – are the first refuge of most people who still have trouble believing that George Bush became president.

What is missing, perhaps, is a place where left-leaning commentators can win a national audience by ranting and raving like the right-wing radio commentators do. But the Left just isn't as good at that as the Right. Which is where Air America's problem may have been right from the beginning.

Air America's star jocks: What happened next

Al Franken

Air America and Al Franken needed one another. A co-founder of the network in 2004, Franken gave it both a sheen of cheeky wit – Franken was a sketch writer for NBC's Saturday Night Live for years and author of books with titles like Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations – and seriousness of thought. For Franken, the network opened a door to a real career in politics. He is now, of course, the junior US Senator from Minnesota.

Rachel Maddow

If the greatest challenge was to nurture on-air personalities that could out-fox Fox, then Air America may have come closest to success with Maddow, who also happens to be the second-best-known lesbian on the US broadcast landscape. (The other being Ellen DeGeneres.) But once the network started to promote her with better and bigger time slots on its schedules, television executives began to take notice. She is now one of MSNBC's biggest stars.

Janeane Garofolo

Another of Saturday Night Live's famous alumni, Garofolo was the other high-profile hire at Air America when it started. She was known to audiences from stints in the NBC hit The West Wing and the long-lamented HBO Comedy Half-Hour's The Larry Sanders Show. But nor were her political views a secret, as she used her prominence in 2003 to speak out against the invasion of Iraq. She left her regular Air America spot in 2006.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'